At a time when mobile instant messaging is available in so many ways -- standard SMS, for free via through Facebook Messenger and through Apple's iMessage for iOS users -- you might think that a free messaging app wouldn't stand a chance as a standalone business.
Ted Livingston, a 25-year-old mobile wunderkind based in Waterloo, Ontario, is out to prove doubters wrong.
His app, Kik, became a viral sensation when it launched in the fall of 2010 -- it added 2 million users in 22 days -- and now claims more than 30 million registered users. More impressive is that Livingston says that Kik is now adding about 100,000 users a day -- although he won't share the juicy data, such as how active people are on Kik.
Livingston and his team of 28 have been holed up for the past year and a half or so, building what they hope turns this free messaging app into a better experience for users and, eventually, a revenue stream for Kik Interactive. Today, it's rolling out a new version of its app for iOS and Android, its first major update since March of 2011, when Kik added group messaging.
With today's release, Kik is adding a feature called Kik Cards. It's a slick way to share content -- YouTube videos, images you grab off the Web, and potentially much more -- that, importantly, doesn't interfere with what makes Kik popular in the first place: It's a super speedy way to message with friends. Kik lets you see if the person on the other end has read the message, making the the whole experience real-time. (Apple added this to iMessage as well.)
"Users want new features, but the challenge is how do you do all these things without ruining the simplicity of the app," said Livingston. "Too many apps add features that they end up pulling."
The process with Kik Cards is simple: You swipe the main conversation screen to the right (there's a tiny handle) to reveal cards, which for this release includes: a card for YouTube videos; a Sketch card that lets you draw something and share it (the other person can add to the drawing); and an Image Card that lets you grab images from the Web. Tap on what you want -- say, a video -- and it appears right in your conversation so you can shoot it to your friend, who can then watch it. It also gets stored on the receiver's card.
While this rollout is small, the plan is to quickly add new cards with an array of categories. "We want to build hundreds, thousands of these over time," Livingston said. One of the challenges -- and reasons it took his team so long to get this ready -- was that Livingston decided to build this in HMTL5, even though, in his view, it "sucks." (You can see the Web version of Kik Cards for YouTube here, for instance.) To make this work well, the Kik team spent a year and a half writing tools and libraries from scratch. Now that that's done, he said, adding new Cards will be quick. The other benefit, Livingston argues, is that competitors won't be able to easily add similar features.
This too fits with his plan for making money. His aim is to get cards sponsored, almost like a channel. So, for instance, there could be a Kik Card with video clips sponsored by Red Bull. One person "Kiks" that video to friends, who then create the Red Bull card within their app and shoots it off to others.
"Monetizing the core messenger experience will be impossible," said Livingston. "Mobile ads are ineffective -- they're crappy for users -- and I don't want sell features. That all hurts the brand."
Still fighting RIM
With Kik Cards, Livingston is trying to stand out in a field still rich with global competitors, including WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk, and Pinger, to name a few. And he is nothing if not persistent. He began working with mobile in 2007 when, as a student at University of Waterloo, he interned at RIM, the BlackBerry maker that's based in his hometown. He then went out on his own, launched Kik, and -- after the app was downloaded by more than 1 million BlackBerry users in a matter of weeks -- RIM filed suit, claiming patent infringement.
The suit is still going on. And while RIM is battling its own well-chronicled problems, Kik has found a new world of users among Android and iOS users. (Forty percent of Kik users are on Android devices; 40 percent are on iPhones; 20 percent are using iPod Touches.)
He also has since raised $15 million from Union Square Ventures, among other venture capitalists, and says he'll either start adding a revenue stream early next year via Kik Cards or he will raise more cash. He says he's had a slew of acquisition offers -- remember, Facebook bought group messenger startup Beluga a year ago -- but won't even entertain them. "We want to be a big independent company," he said.
You can watch a demo of the product here.